Book Review: Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

Almost Autumn
Marianne Kaurin
Arthur A. Levine Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-88965-0
Hardcover

The world we live in today is so ‘moment-to-moment’ in terms of information, we feel saturated and overwhelmed when evil things happen. It was markedly different for fifteen year old Ilse Stern, a Norwegian Jew. When the Nazis occupied her country in 1942, one of the first things they did was force everyone to turn in their wireless receivers (radios), effectively shutting off the most available information flow.

Ilse lives in a cramped fourth floor apartment with her parents and two sisters. Sonja is older and over-responsible, trying to keep the household running as well as do what she can to help her father keep his tailor shop afloat. Miriam, age five, is quiet and loves to draw pictures with her trademark sun featured in each. Mother is somewhat dour and constantly finds fault with Ilse, who’s a dreamer and avid reader with a big crush on teen neighbor Hermann Rod.

The Nazi occupiers’ squeeze on Jewish citizens begins gradually with a requirement that they have new registration papers stamped with a red J. Overly frequent requirements that Jewish men report to authorities coincides with a spike in verbal attacks and defacing of property. It becomes so bad, Mr. Stern leaves an hour early to remove the words written on his shop windows so Ilse and Sonja won’t see them when they arrive to help out.

Meanwhile, Hermann has gotten involved in the resistance, but must cover this activity by pretending he’s apprenticing to a painter across town. His involvement causes him to stand Ilse up for their first date, a night at the local cinema. For the next month, neither quite knows how to break the chill that follows this.

At the same time as the two teens are dancing around their feelings for each other, the campaign of terror has been ramped up by the occupation forces and in short order, the tailor shop is forced to close, all savings accounts and safe deposit boxes owned by Jewish citizens are ordered closed and all adult Jewish males are arrested and taken to a secret location.

Ilse and Hermann run off for a day of skiing and reconciliation. While gone, her family is taken into custody as are most other Jewish citizens. After a horrific sea voyage and a frigid train ride, with all packed tighter than cattle, they end up at Aushwitz. The description of what happened during these trips, as well as their reception at the prison camp, are low key, but still leave the reader feeling chilled.

If you want to learn what happened to Ilse, read the book. It’s an excellently understated story of how a large number of innocent human beings were terrified before being carted off to be executed simply because of their ethnicity. We need books like this to remind those who have forgotten and make aware those who never knew. Highly suggested for any school or public library collection.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, November 2017.

Book Review: An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Alfred A. Knopf, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-385-34958-1
Hardcover

You could say that this is the story of Alfred Dreyfus who was convicted for treason in Paris in 1895. But, oh, this historical thriller is also much more than that.

The story is told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, head of counterespionage, who finds himself re-investigating the case after Dreyfus’ imprisonment. I found Picquart to be a very interesting guy. He’s been in the military most of his life, doesn’t have much of a personal life, is an ambitious man out of sync with those around him. He doesn’t buy their “If I’m told to shoot someone, I shoot” mentality. Picquart questions things. He investigates. He puts his career and even himself in great jeopardy.

You won’t need to know anything about the Dreyfus affair or 19th century France to enjoy this book. I waited to read more about the actual case until after I had finished the book so I wouldn’t know what was going to happen. Even if you tend not to like historical fiction, you may very well like this book. It could be classified in several genres: a mystery, a thriller, espionage, conspiracy. What I found most fascinating about it is that it makes sense of how a situation can evolve into a conspiracy without anyone ever planning one in the first place.

There are many characters involved here but it’s never a problem remembering them all. There’s a list of characters at the beginning of the book. And the author is very good about reminding the reader who each character is each time he brings them back into the story.

My favorite quote: “If I pull back now… I’d be obliged to spend the rest of my life with the knowledge that when the moment came, I couldn’t rise to it. It would destroy me – I’d never be able to look at a painting or read a novel or listen to music again without a creeping sense of shame.”

It’s a compelling read, written in a very engaging style with a lot of intensity and passion. It certainly made me think. My favorite kind of book.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, February 2014.